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How to Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular

DREAMWORKS: The jaw-dropping special effects in this live show can’t hide the gargantuan production’s curious lack of heart.
How to Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular

Like Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, which somehow managed to lose the magic of the original 1933 movie by remaking it with state of the art special effects, DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular is a curiously lifeless affair.

A co-production with Global Creatures – the Melbourne-based company behind the successful Walking with Dinosaurs live show – the How To Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular is based on the 2010 animated movie directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. Its story is a simple one, a classic hero’s journey about an awkward young misfit, Hiccup, who finds himself at odds with the violent ways of his fellow Vikings and their leader, his father, Stoick. Attempting to prove himself by slaying a dragon, Hiccup instead befriends the creature and in so doing forever changes the lives of his clan.

Having not watched the original film until after seeing the Arena Spectacular on Thursday night, I judged the live production solely on its own merits – and I found it wanting.

The story is stilted, and scenes that should be dramatic and moving are laboured and leaden. Global Creatures’ majestic, life-size animatronic dragons are the stars of the show – especially when they breathe fire, blow smoke rings and take flight – but the theatricality of the show they star in is sadly lacking. Dialogue is wooden, and both pacing and blocking are awkward. The inclusion of a multi-racial cast of acrobats, martial artists and circus performers – while refreshing in their diversity; a win for colour-blind casting – adds little to the show save to pad its running time, and there is a distinct lack of chemistry between all the performers, as if the human element had been overshadowed by the production’s scale.

The liberal use of music by Jón ‘Jónsi’ Þór Birgisson provides some emotional resonance for the story, though cannot entirely mask the production’s shortcomings.

The original film’s 3D animation is recreated by digital projections across the floor and backdrop (comprised of nine interlocking movie screens) and the results are genuinely striking – at least when viewed full-on. Sitelines for audience members sitting at the sides of the arena were much less satisfactory, according to many people I spoke to on opening night. But even the visuals drag at times when director Nigel Jamieson seems more intent on remaking the movie rather than finding the theatricality inherent in the live production. Only rarely, in a handful of scenes – such as a sequence depicting illuminated Viking longships sailing across a laser sea – does this production really come into its own.

Like a Hollywood blockbuster whose plot has been written on a back of a napkin, the How To Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular lacks emotion, drama and narrative cohesion. Its opening night in Melbourne was further marred by the seeming last minute replacement of Australian leads Rarmian Newton (Hiccup) and Sarah McCreanor (Astrid, the romantic interest) by their American counterparts Riley Miner and Gemma Nguyen – an odd decision seeing as Newton would have been performing before his hometown crowd.

Despite six previews before opening night, it was very much evident on Thursday that the How To Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular needs considerable work before it is ready to take flight. But by god the dragons are breathtaking.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

How To Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular
Director/Adaption for the Stage: Nigel Jamieson
Creature Designer: Sonny Tilders
Production Designer: Peter England
Costume Designer and Projection Designer: Dan Potra
Associate Director/Aerialist Devisor: Gavin Robins
Composer: Jónsi
Composer: John Powell
Sound Designer: Peter Hylenski
Lighting Designer: Phil Lethlean

Melbourne, Hisense Arena: March 2 – 11
Sydney, Allphones Arena: March 16 – 25
Brisbane Entertainment Centre: March 28 – April 1
Auckland, Vector Arena: April 18 – 22

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Richard Watts

Saturday 10 March, 2012

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts